Wednesday, August 3, 2016
While the news seems to carry no recent story of police shootings, or police being shot, I want to make some comments unrelated to an immediate or current situation. I know that there will be future killings which I believe to be inevitable; though deplorable and tragic it is nevertheless fairly predictable.
As a Christian, and as an American, I am vested not only in the concept of justice, but in its practice. I want our country to be great, and I want each local municipality to be great in the living out of the values of our country, of equal justice under law, where police departments are created, supported, and held accountable by the citizens that pay for those services and who are entitled to the fair and equitable provision of those services as Americans. I believe we need great policing in every place, and not just that which is adequate, and certainly not that which is corrupt or incompetent.
I believe in the administration of justice through those ordained to that task in our various levels of government. I believe they deserve our respect, our support, our encouragement, our prayers, and even our protection so that they might carry out their duties with integrity, diligence, and under law.
One of the reasons I become so disturbed when I see or hear of an unjustified killing by a police officer or government official is that I believe it puts police officers at risk in general. It is part of American history and lore that when sheriffs, marshals, or city constables became oppressive or bullies, the populace would take measures into their hands to get rid of them, even to the point of violence. I believe the Earp brothers had this experience. This was much easier to do in smaller towns or cities compared to today’s large municipal cities and counties where policing can be more impersonal and even fairly anonymous.
When citizens fear for their lives, or have the idea that any police officer can be dangerous to them, Americans have not casually abided with that atmosphere. The current situation between African American communities versus police is not an atypical American scenario, from the perspective of history. Obviously in our current American situation African Americans are the community that feels the threat, and some individuals in that community have begun to consider some kind of retribution for what they fear has been oppressive and selective violence.
As a Christian, as a citizen, I cannot and do not condone violence against anyone, especially those who are in authority. The criminal, outrageous, and insane retaliation against men and women while doing their duty, most of whom had nothing to do with incidents in other states, is a shame and threat to all of us. We are a nation under law, and neither individuals nor groups should be allowed to take the law (or the law of revenge) into their own hands. Such talk of revenge and violence on social media, or even in private conversations, should be immediately rebuked and rejected by everyone.
There are legitimate reasons for African Americans, and all people, to be upset about targeted profiling, abusive conduct, gratuitous violence and even murder at the hand of police officers. African Americans who have gained much in the last fifty years have come to the conclusion that their lives should matter just as much as anyone’s. It is enraging to them that their lives might still be considered disposable by authority or the wider society. The use of authority to be oppressive is one of the most heinous insults to a fair and just democracy. The idea of America is to oppose governmental oppression; it is how our nation was created.
Police officers carry out an incredibly difficult task in often hostile environments, if not solely at moments of conflict with potentially dangerous individuals. If they are to do their job well they must be very well trained, and trained in techniques that are not simply based on their own self-defense and personal protection. We don’t train our officers as well as we should. We don’t pay them as well as we should. We don’t have enough of them. One other thing, we have not done a good enough job of holding them and their departments accountable for how they are doing their job.
Maybe this a good opportunity for change, maybe be we can gain from the ashes, and tears, and funerals. How much training do we give officers in defusing conflict, rather than simply gaining control of the situation, or of escalating the violence until they have the suspect under complete domination? If ever there was a time for more courage from officers instead of following their training to take down suspects until they are helpless or dead, it is now. This means I think some of the training is wrong, and has had the wrong emphasis.
How much have we trained our citizens that the police work for all of us, and that it is our job in a democracy not to let them become their own fiefdom? Police unions are not the authority on justice or citizen rights, they speak to defend union members. Police are usually given the benefit of the doubt by Grand Juries, Prosecutors, and criminal juries. It is very difficult to convict them if a jury can be convinced an officer feared for his life. We ought to train them well enough that fear ought not to be such a believable and easy defense. Why has fear become such a universal defense for killing people, both for people like Zimmerman, and for officers?
Good people doing the best they can still make mistakes. Some officers have done all they can to refrain from using force but sometimes the people they are confronting give them no choice. Things can happen so quickly and predicting how a person will respond, even to legitimate commands, is unsure. This is of course where the community has to be understanding of the dilemma an officer might have been in and all of us must close our ranks around them and support them. They are our police. However, because they are ours and do not exist independently, where there has been abuse, profiling, needless and escalating confrontation, gratuitous violence such as body slamming, knees in the back, beatings even when handcuffed, electric shocks as punishment and shootings while subdued or in the back, then officers need to face the consequences of their criminal actions.
When the larger community sees officers facing justice, and the system actually holding them accountable, then confidence grows, trust is reestablished, and respect for authority is maintained. In this world we are never going to stop all evil, either from real criminals or from failed policing. We can stand up against it, and we must, if are to maintain the agreement between the citizens who create police departments and those in turn who police them. It is not true that the police are the only defense of the people from evil. The people themselves are that protection through the agencies they create, support, and hold accountable.